A chill breeze rustled through the tall grass as Mary walked the well-known path toward the town’s only well. The first hints of sunlight had not yet begun to peep over the horizon. How Mary loved this hour before the dawn: the world was quiet, waiting. The air was fresh as was the day.
At the foot of a steep knoll, Mary hid her jug behind an old brambly bush, before making her way up a narrow trail well worn by her own soft steps. She would greet the dawn from that high place with a psalm of praise:
My heart is steadfast, O God; my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and chant praise.
Awake, O my soul; awake, lyre and harp!
I will wake the dawn.
Of course, others knew this trail and came to the place at the top, but at this early hour it was always Mary’s alone. A grove of olive trees sheltered the view from the road. A fine panorama of the local countryside opened up in the opposite direction. Soon the landscape would be bathed with the pink hues of morning. Mary looked at the morning star still bright against the lingering shades of night and whispered with it, Here we are! Then closing her eyes, she stood slowly breathing in the cold air, taking in the stillness of the early morning.
Gradually a feeling came over Mary that she was no longer alone. She opened her eyes to look about. A great light appeared before her, too bright to be a lamp and too sudden to be the rising sun. Yet Mary was not blinded by the light. A form began to take shape before her eyes as of a young man, hale and hearty, walking straight toward her out of the light, but not coming up the hill.
The newcomer was as dazzling as the mysterious light that surrounded him, with golden hair and eyes like sapphires, clothed in a white linen tunic that seemed to be girded with sunlight. Maybe it was only an impression from the miraculous light, but it seemed as if mighty wings were rising up behind him. As the figure approached, Mary saw that his expression was filled with laughter and joy, and yet there was nothing frivolous about him; there was great power and deep wisdom in his look. He halted at a respectful distance. A name formed within Mary’s thoughts, Gabriel. The archangel’s presence did not frighten her, but seeing that he wished to address her, Mary could not help but wonder why a Prince of Angels would come to one so insignificant as she.
Gabriel spoke: “Rejoice, Full of Grace!” His voice was at once thunder and music, but what was this he was saying? Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. What could it mean? Mary was troubled by these unexpected greetings.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God, the angel enjoined. With these words, as if by command, Mary’s trouble melted into eagerness to listen to this heavenly messenger.
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
The Messiah! The angel was announcing to Mary the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, the King of Israel. Her thoughts flashed to Joseph, her betrothed, a worthy son of David and a truly righteous man, but how could they conceive? Surely Gabriel was not asking them to break their vow of perpetual virginity. How could the Messiah be born from infidelity? How can this be, Mary asked aloud, since I have no relations with a man?
Gabriel fell to his knees before Mary and replied solemnly, The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. The divine light surrounding the kneeling archangel enveloped Mary, strengthening her to hear his words so terrifying in their magnitude. Mary’s spirit trembled not with fear so much as with gladness.
Then smiling, the archangel looked up at Mary and said, And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.
After a moment of silently pondering all that Gabriel had spoken, Mary answered, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. She did not understand how any of this could be or why she had been chosen, but she did not doubt the message was from God. She said, May it be done to me according to your word.
The angel bowed his head and was gone. The wonderful light lingered, or perhaps the sun at last had risen. Mary was on her knees deep in prayer.
When Mary was once more aware of her surroundings, the sun had climbed high into the sky. Voices interrupted the silence at intermittent intervals as people passed along the path below with their plodding animals and creaking carts. Looking down, Mary placed her hand to her stomach in awe; there was a Presence there. Physically she did not look or feel any different, but Mary believed. “The Son of God,” she whispered trembling.
The shrill laugh of a child somewhere in the distance stirred Mary from her reverie. She was late. She would be missed. The water was still to be fetched, and she wished very much to see Joseph. Mary hastened down the trail, but in her heart, there reigned a profound peace. The wild tulips seemed to glow with happiness all about her. The sky was bright and clear; the world was full of hope.
“All things are possible to God,” Mary repeated while stooping to reclaim her water jug. As she started down the path toward the well, the last message of the angel replayed in her ears: Elizabeth is in her sixth month.
“I will go to her,” she said.
The well was crowded. While Mary would have gladly remained alone to ponder in silence the great mystery within her, each familiar face filled her with new wonder at the angel’s message—God would be born a little child and walk among them, these very people! Her mind lingered in higher realms as she politely exchanged the usual small talk with unusual affection. At last, Mary’s turn came to draw water and the jug was soon filled. Mary was anxious to get home to her mother whom she knew would be concerned about the delay. All the same, she intended to take advantage of the long walk home to ponder Gabriel’s words and prayerfully consider how to make known the angel’s message to Joseph and her parents whose good counsel and strong support she appreciated now more than ever.
Mary paused, turning toward the other Mary, Joseph’s sister whose marriage to Alphaeus the vine grower’s son had first brought him to Nazareth. The other Mary was a little younger, fifteen, and full of life, perhaps too much for her sober-minded husband. Marriage will calm her down the local women had said. Then it was wait until she has children. All the same, she was kind to all and had won the affection of her father-in-law who was widely respected. She was well formed and sturdy, willing to work hard like her brother, and loyal. Unlike her brother, the other Mary was an incorrigible busybody and the infant wrapped snugly against her chest had not changed this in the least.
“Wait for us!” she called to Mary. Joseph’s little sister had a band of young wives and old maids who followed her around as their queen bee. “I’m not going to let you sneak off like that, not this morning.” She ran up to her future sister-in-law after having cut ahead of the line in order to quickly fill her water jar.
Taking Mary’s free arm, the other Mary declared, “We are family now; we must walk together.” While Mary wished very much to walk alone with God, she did not wish to spurn her devoted sister-in-law whose path coincided with her own for much of the way. Soon the morning’s gossip swirled about them. All knew that Mary was not one to participate in such frivolous banter and would plainly object when the gossip even risked turning malicious. They also knew that no one was more attentive when it came to a heart to heart conversation or gave better advice when it was earnestly sought. Mary had a heart of gold and the others loved her and respected her, but for that very reason they tried all the more to draw her into their gossiping, especially this morning when her own unusual change of routine was among the chief topics of interest.
But Mary was not listening. Her eyes were fixed on Joseph’s little nephew sleeping soundly against his mother’s breast despite the endless chatter, which seemed rather to soothe him. Soon, Mary too would have a child pressed against her bosom, and that child would be as helpless as this and yet would be the very Son of God who would bring salvation to them all. The reality of it caught her breath.
“Look at you Mary!”
“Why you’re all aglow! What’s come over you this morning?”
“And late to the well, too.”
The other Mary saw her moment and took charge of the conversation: “I was going to tell you, Mary, that Joseph is home from the seaside. Alphaeus walked in with him on the road from Cana yesterday. It was late, so he did not stop at the vineyard, but maybe he did not go straight home after all…” The other Mary left her innuendo to be expressed by the mischievous twinkle in her eye. She and all the others were well aware of both Mary and Joseph’s unimpeachable virtue.
“I was not aware that he was coming home so soon,” Mary answered, disregarding the attempt to bait her. All the same the news pleased her very much. She was excited to share the good news with Joseph whose permission she wanted to visit Elizabeth. In any case, it would not be right to leave for Judea without first speaking to her betrothed of the unparalleled favor God was bestowing on all people through them. A movement of anticipation betrayed Mary's thoughts. It was not missed, although it was misinterpreted.
“Why Mary, what’s come over you?” her future sister-in-law teased.
“She’s in love,” responded kindly Rachel.
“Well it’s about time she showed it,” broke in boorish Deborah who had set her sights on Joseph almost as soon as he had arrived in Nazareth. “She has only caught for herself the biggest—and by that I mean the handsomest—fish in this little sea of ours. The least she could do is gush or swoon every once and again to show he’ll not be wasted on her.”
“That’s my brother you are talking about!” protested the other Mary who had hoped the conversation would take such a turn. She never missed an opportunity to brag about her brother Joseph's good points. She sought now to claim those of her future sister-in-law as well, but this latter was not cooperating. Mary was hardly even paying attention.
Yes, Mary was in love, in love with a Love far greater than any man, even dear Joseph. Now this marvelous Love was within her, was in the world. Jesus. His name would be Jesus.
All of a sudden, the other Mary’s heated chastisements expertly calculated to egg on her friends in praise of her family were swallowed up in the deep tones of a man’s clear voice calling urgently, “Mary!”
The queen bee stopped short. Her entire demeanor changed. She became like an expectant child. “Joseph!” she exclaimed as her elder brother strode up. “Joseph, you’re home!”
Joseph's eyes scanned the group finally settling on the object of his search, but before he could say another word, his little sister stepped confidently between them. “Were you looking for me?” She was aglow. His timing could not have been better.
Joseph looked at her disconcerted, “Why would I be looking for you? Didn’t Alphaeus already tell you I was home?” His sister deflated at the rebuff. Her brother was not insensitive and quickly made his amends: he patted her affectionately on the head, adding warmly, “It’s good to see you, little sister. And you too little James.” The baby likewise received a pat before Joseph turned his attention to his betrothed for whom he was actually looking. Mary had not missed Joseph’s solicitude for his nephew.
“Your mother was worried,” he explained sounding clearly relieved. “She was expecting you back quite some time ago. I was coming this way and promised to keep an eye out for you. Everything’s okay, then?” Joseph blushed a little at the sudden realization that he was in the midst of an entire gaggle of giggling girls.
Mary likewise felt embarrassed. She was bursting to talk to Joseph, but not here, not now. She knew each of her companions to be God-fearing young women despite their silliness and pettiness when together, but she did not yet dare to speak of the great news before them, even if it was as much their good news as hers. But how could she keep her miraculous pregnancy from Joseph, her betrothed? Joseph must know: they were meant to walk this road together.
Joseph's sister read the betrothed couple's embarrassed expressions, and, guessing something of their dilemma, helped as best she knew how. She subtly pinched her baby who broke out into a squeal of anguish. Between baby Jame's fussing and his mother's, all the attention was drawn away from Mary and Joseph who did not fail to profit from the distraction to hold a whispered conference.
“Yes, I am very well," Mary answered. "I am heading home now. I do have something to tell you, though. When will I see you next?”
“Your father has invited me to dinner tonight. Unless it’s urgent...” Joseph looked around concerned.
“No, it can wait until tonight. That seems best; I will tell everyone at once.”
Joseph gazed at Mary in wonder; there was some new radiance about her. “Until tonight then,” he said, and reassured, yet curious, he turned and quickly bounded up the path before the gaggle could regroup around him.
Mary watched him go. Joseph was a good man and would be a good father; how grateful she was to God for the blessing that he would be for her, for the blessing that Joseph would be for all Israel.
Suddenly, Mary was aware of her sister-in-law’s presence at her side. The other Mary whispered in her ear, “You owe me one.”